Holodeck Stories of Win!

This week’s Trek post (it’ll stop soon, it will) is about the most reviled genre of Trek story: the Holodeck episode. after copious and diligent research,* there are three main reasons I’ve found that makes this Trek genre beat out even the dreaded One Episode Romance as Worst Trek Genre:

1) It’s considered lazy writing (almost all decent Holodeck stories get their drama from something other then “our cool toy broke again and might kill us, again”)
2) It destroys one’s suspension of disbelief. If, say, one in a million times they were played video games exploded and killed the gamer, PEOPLE WOULD NOT BE SO KEEN TO PLAY VIDEO GAMES, also the people who make video games would be under QUITE A BIT OF PRESSURE to stop their games killing people if they wished to continue making them. There would not be a verbal command that could be disabled and allow people to get their games to kill them.
3) No, really, the writing is often bollocks. And since this is Star Trek, supposedly about strange new worlds and civilisations and the majesty of humanity and our desire to explore and understand the cosmos, it’s a bit of a letdown when the story’s about how badly future video games are programmed.

HOWEVER, while it would be easy and a bit delightful to rip into the worst of the worst and explain at length why no television series deserves Fair Haven, that’s not what this post is about. Oh no! We are here to CELEBRATE this maligned genre. Why? Cause there are great Holodeck stories hidden amongst the dreck, enough even for a short list. Here they are, in descending order of greatness**:

6) The Big Goodbye – “What?! But this is a terrible story.” Yes. Sort of. Except for context. Sure you watch this now and you want to hide behind your shiny cushions, and feel like someone’s stabbed you with a bat’leth every time there’s a Holodeck cliche, but imagine watching this in the late eighties and amidst the general dreck of season one TNG; lo and behold, it stands out as being Vaguely Competent. Sure, this isn’t going to be on anyone’s Top Ten TNG list (oh God, it’s not, is it? I bet it is, I JUDGE YOU POTENTIAL BIG GOODBYE TOP TENNER), but it comes up with all the AMAZING PLOT TWISTS (safeties off! Holograms find out about real world! Holograms discover they’re holograms!”) we grow to hate and loathe over the next fifteen years. Wait…that’s a bad thing, isn’t it? Um, anyway, the Dickson Hill thing is pretty neat, look at Patrick Stewart, acting away! And it won an Emmy, don’t you know? For costumes, which are tbf pretty nifty. The whole noir thing is actually really well done, it’s just the story beats were imitated so many times that it rather spoils the one time where it was all original. But anyway, it’s not a bad episode, especially for early TNG.

5) Elementary, Dear Data – I know, I know, it’s Brent Spiner mugging it up as Sherlock Holmes. It has the daftest plot device of TNG so far (probably not, but let’s pretend) as with a single wrong word Geordi gets the Enterprise computer to create NEW and SENTIENT life, thus fueling a bijillion tedious mailing list (look it up, young people) debates on whether the computer is actually sentient or not. AND YET, I love it a lot. And I am happy to argue it’s quite great really. Data and Geordi are not the worst pairing in the history of Trek, and I’ve an enormous soft spot for their Holmes and Watson thing what they do. (I should probably not admit this, but…this was actually my introduction to Sherlock Holmes. Yes, kids, my first Holmes was an American sentient future android sticking on a deerstalker and playing Holmes in a video game.) And with Pulaski on full “fuck off, Data” mode, a smashing dress, and the rather excellent Moriarty, and some moralising that’s nowhere near as heavy as what TNG tends to favour and heh, a winner is you!

4) Hollow Pursuits – I went on a bit last week about why I love this ep, but yeah, it is a good un, and a good Holodeck story too, because instead of it being about the Holodeck safeties malfunctioning (WHY did anyone ever think this was a compelling source of conflict?) it’s used in the way any sensible person would use it: to dress up in fab period costume and swordfight. It should probably be higher than at least one of the the Voyager eps below, but while it’s an episode I identify with, and there are honest to God musketeers in it, it doesn’t make me flail, and the top three do have that magic thingumijiggie that makes me flail. With the awesome. Not sadness.

3) Bride of Chaotica! – There is an exclamation mark in the title. What better way to mark out that this is a PROPER GREAT EPISODE. The only complaints are all the faffing around used to justify the central and awesome premise: Janeway has to pretend to by a thirties sci-fi adventure serial villainess. IT’S SO GOOD. And fun and meta, and of all the things Voyager fucked up, having Paris and Kim mess about playing Captain Proton and Buster Kincaid was not one of them. And here the WHOLE STORY is about a daft Holodeck adventure in ye olde SF serial. Except the pacing isn’t glacial! And there’s rather less racism and sexism! And it’s even in black and white! And Kate Mulgrew is just magic. Oh, Bride of Chaotica, you are the best of them, almost.

2) Worst Case Scenario – Now, I remember getting a bit spoiled re Bride of Chaotica! by TV Zone (a magazine, a paper magazine, from ye olden days – I think it’s still about) so going in I had Expectations, and resented every moment Mulgrew wasn’t hamming it up like a pro. But this one? Not a peep. And that is very definitely the best way to see it. Voyager, as you might know, is not the most compelling of television shows. I don’t want to be ludicrously unfair, but I’m pretty sure I slept through at least two and a half seasons of it. So, given that, it’s always a bit of a shock when an episode comes along and honest to God staples your eyeballs to the television screen. This hooked me right in is what I’m saying. “What the dickens is going on here? I MUST KNOW!” was my deep and insightful through the whole first act. See, we open with B’Elanna just going about her business when Chakotay walks right up and is all “time to takeover the ship! Starfleet is shit, Maquis forever!” And since Voyager OH SO WISELY dropped that dramatic conflict about three hours into the series and this is season three, the viewer is a bit wtf? But in a GOOD WAY. Mutiny happens! Maybe if yer a canny viewer (and while plot twists are almost always a surprise to me no matter how clumsily signposted, I did spot this) might notice B’Elanna’s rank insigna is MIA. And then everything freezes! Literally! Wtf?! Omg, it’s a holodeck adventure! About themselves! If they were more interesting! Anyway, it’s genuinely fun to see the drama restart with a different character playing the part of Young Mutineer and how their choices affect the Exciting Mutiny. And then Tuvok pipes up and spoils it all by saying “dudes, it’s not fun, it’s a security training simulation I wrote during that one morning when we had potential for drama about the fact we’re Maquis and Starfleet on the same ship”. Aw. Oh well. BUT THEN Tuvok and Paris get peer-pressured into writing an ending cause everyone is having so much fun and Seska (main protagonist from seasons one and two, now dead) turns up in Hologram form for REVENGE. And Janeway has to fanfic for Tuvok and Paris’s lives. NOT EVEN KIDDING. It’s magnificent. I love everything about this story. If you’re going to be fucking ludicrous, MAKE IT THIS ENTERTAINING. Oh Seska, you were the best of them.

1) Our Man Bashir – *FLAILS* Right, yeah, so, you know what I was saying about how many rotten Holodeck stories there are? Well, this is the reward for sitting through them all: the sublime and delicious Our Man Bashir. A top episode from a top show, that manages to be ridiculous and wonderful and fun and mean something. There are so many ways it’s great. Now Bashir is our Holodeck Guy on DS9. He’s the one who in one delightful (not smug, or self-indulgent, dammit) scene has the rest of the senior staff list off all the Holodeck programs he’s spent hours playing. Bless his heart. And in this one he is James Bond, and thank goodness we got this because we’re never going to actually get Siddig El Fadil as Bond, but this is almost as good. And he’s playing Bond with actual ex/spy and sort of friend plain simple Garak, and Garak  has FEELINGS about his sort of friend *playing* at his profession. What those feelings actually are is Marvellously Ambiguous. But we do get the most magical scene where Bashir threatens to shoot Garak because Garak is about to risk the lives of the rest of Our Heroes in order to make sure his own is safe. Garak thinks it’s a bluff. And then Bashir DOES shoot him. And misses. And we don’t know if he really meant to miss or it was a bad shot and it is just SO GOOD. And then there are Our Heroes, who for Plot Reasons that are Just An Excuse for Lols trapped in the computer and their physical images are stored in the Holodeck and they have to keep the Holodeck running or else they might be deleted blah blah, let’s stop wasting valuable time technobabbling when we could be back with the Exciting James Bond Adventure in Spaaaaace!! Anyway, the regulars all play the various Bond roles. And standout is Avery Brooks, who is a terrifying Bond villain, and all delightful mad egotism. And he wins! Because Bashir destroys the world. Not actually, only on the Holodeck, but it is very lolsome. Anyway, proper good, top episode.

*  I asked some people on the Internet.
** This is my own special definition of greatness.



Top Ten Star Trek: the Next Generation

I am in the midst of flu. Not serious flu, the sort of flu that makes you feel utterly miserable and your limbs ache and your head floofy, but not actually bad enough that you can’t wander about and complain heartily about your pitiable condition. Anyway, flu, yes. YAY. So it’s making writing a smidgen difficult, and I really hate not to write at all, so I’m making this Very Easy What Could Possibly Go Wrong post about Star Trek: The Next Generation. (I would say as part of an ongoing series of blog posts about Trek to celebrate its fiftieth year, but that would be a lie.) Because I felt I was a bit mean about it in this post. I mean, it IS Beige, dammit, but it’s also telly I’ve watched more times than I care to admit. And really, no-one forced me to watch it. And if you can have a podcast’s worth of conversation about any episode of a 176 episode telly series, it’s got to be doing something right. So here we are, a list of my Top Ten TNG stories.

Now since this is a favourites list, it has the virtue of NEVER BEING WRONG (in the actual proper sense of wrongness, not the way I tell people they’re wrong if they diss the Time Monster (that’s Doctor Who, not Star Trek, but I do assume anyone reading my blog knows too much about Doctor Who – it’s totally cool if you don’t though! It just means you spent your time much more wisely than I)). On the down side, it means having to justify my favourite TNG episodes. Luckily, it’s not like TOS where I have to explain a vast and epic love for Turnabout Intruder. So, without further waffling, my Top Ten TNG Stories (stories, not episodes, so I SLIGHTLY cheat and don’t have to worry about whether part one is better than part two):

“Mr. Worf, dispatch a subspace message to Admiral Hanson. We have engaged the Borg.” – Patrick Stewart imbues what looks like a pretty non-epic line with SRS EPIC EPICNESS. Are there any five words better said in TNG than “we have engaged the Borg”? No. No, there are not.

1) The Best of Both Worlds – the first of no less than five stories on the list from season three, which is weird. I never realised that’s where all my favs lived before. Anyway, tBoBW, the King, the Big Mac, the One Everyone Knows Is Best (and It Is). This is gold standard Trek, the sort of Trek you frame, polish, and stick on the mantlepiece to show off to every poor sod passing through who happens to mention to you that they don’t entirely dislike sci-fi. I could happily sit down with this episode and yourself, gentle reader, and explain in painful detail why just about every scene is amazing. Everything is great: Starfleet’s reaction to the Borg, Shelby, Guinan, the starship graveyard, the sense of doom, the Locutus reveal, the Borg ship fight scenes, “Mr Worf…fire!”, the fact this is an honest-to-God ensemble piece and EVERYONE gets something decent to do, Riker has ACTUAL GOOD SCENES (with Guinan, and Shelby, and Picard, by gum), and we get the beige ending (lol, he sends them to sleep) BUT we get the explosion too. So it’s TNG cake and everyone gets a slice and it is AWESOME. Sometimes I forget how good this story is, but every time it’s on the telly I stop to watch and it’s fucking magic all over again.

2) The Defector – Maybe my actual favourite episode, if only tBoBW wasn’t so gobsmackingly good that it’d be physically painful not to give it the number one spot. “The Defector?!” you might be saying. “Wtf is that?” Well, quite. I can only say you’ve NO TASTE. If on the other hand, you’re nodding sagely at this most excellent decision, well done, I assume you like it when Trek doesn’t fuck over the Romulans. See, the Romulans are my fav Trek species. I love them. And I hate almost every story they’re in because after their superlative two TOS episodes, Trek mostly treats them EXCEEDINGLY BADLY (you want to hear my rant about their TNG film appearances? No, no you don’t; no-one does). But for a little while TNG tried. It really bloody well tried to be good to them. This started in two season three stories, The Enemy (worthy but dull) and The Defector, which is, for me, deliciously stupendously good. Don’t get me wrong, if this was a DS9 episode, it would have teeth, but it’s TNG so there is a fuck of a lot of beige AND YET it’s still magnificent. On the character side we have Picard shit scared he’s going to fuck up and accidentally start a war, and Admiral Jarok, a Romulan war hero who’s disgusted at the thought his leaders are trying to press them towards another fruitless conflict with the Federation. You get Picard teaching Data about humanity and I DON’T WANT THEM THROWN IN A PLAGUE PIT, maybe cause they’re messing about with Henry V, maybe cause it’s actually honest-to-God relevant to the episode and no-one is trying to be COMEDIC. It’s another gloomy (for TNG), tense, episode, and it makes me happy, so happy. Patrick Stewart really is amazing, and the Romulans get to be what they’re supposed to me: a nuanced, credible adversary to the Federation.

3) Q Who – Often my feelings about a part of Trek can be summed up by Enthusiastic Quotation of the Appropriate Era, and Q Who is a perfect example of that. It’s REALLY HARD to think of Picard as beige when he’s speeching at the end. Cause it’s top quality speeching, and it’s top quality Patrick Stewart, and that bit where he’s “I need you, Q!” is punch the air GORGEOUS because it’s TNG being fucking self-aware, and it DOESN’T WORK if the show isn’t pompous and moralising. This episode would be bad DS9 is what I’m saying. The whole thing is Proper Good though, taking the Star Trek opening monologue, finding the strange new civilisation and using it to give Our Heroes a good kick in their smug. There’s also every moment with Picard and Q; those are spiffy. And, yes, the Borg are very cool, and no, I don’t care they changed their raison d’etre between this and tBoBW.

4) Chain of Command – This story is forever etched on my memory as That One Time My Parents Exercised A Little Parental Responsibility Regarding the Science Fiction Watched By Their Children. Mum actually prewatched part two of this one, and made a face of “hmmm” at the idea of me watching it. It didn’t last long; I was a very persistent child. Please bear in mind that this was rated PG and I was eight or so, but there were NO PROBLEMS with preschool me sitting down for a good bit of psychological trauma and nightmarish fun in Wrath of Khan (rated 15) and THOSE BLOODY EAR BUGS. Anyway, Chain of Command. So, yeah, another Picard heavy episode and one which gets a lot of kudos for the dark, intense scenes between Stewart and David Warner. And they are exceedingly good. The Cardassians will end up being arguably the most complex, compelling alien civilisation in Trek, thanks to DS9, but even in these early days when TNG was still on, they’re not slouching. The WWII overtones are heavy, but legit; Warner is old skool villainy: polite, urbane, and monstrous. Again, it’s TNG being a bit grown-up as it ends on a sombre, rather gorgeous scene between Troi and Picard as he confesses that he did break. While the Warner and Stewart stuff is the standout, what’s happening back on the Enterprise is pretty nifty too. We get one of my favourite guest characters, Captain Edward Jellico, who is smart, capable, and does not get along at all with his new senior staff. IT’S SO GOOD. And there’s no softening of the relationship, no mutual admiration in the end or agree to disagree, they just don’t gel. And it’s awesome. Because Jellico is smart enough and capable enough to do the damn job anyway and stop a war.

5) Hollow Pursuits – Another TNG favourite that only really properly works as a TNG – if this were DS9 it would be SEEDY but it’s TNG so it’s all PG-RATED FANTASY YAY. Which means it’s only a little bit creepy instead of a lot. HURRAH! But, yes, I love this because Barclay is VERY VERY ME. I mean, sure, I wanted to be Uhura, then Dax, then…sort of T’Pol? A bit. But REALISTICALLY I didn’t have a shot in this shiny utopian future full of military space scientists. AND THEN THERE WAS BARCLAY. And he was awkward and a dork and painfully shy (that bit where Geordi’s “you’re just shy” and Barclay is “you can’t know”? MY HEART) and shit at stuff and used the Holodeck to pretend he was a musketeer and swordfight and HEARTS IN MY EYES, cause suddenly I GOT TO BE ON THE ENTERPRISE TOO. Sure, my boss would patronise me and the captain would call me a vegetable BUT STILL. And aside from the massive overidentification with Our Hero, it really is a smashing story, the best holodeck story Trek ever did. Probably. I mean Our Man Bashir I love more BUT this is, I admit grudgingly, the better story.

6) Yesterday’s Enterprise – This scared me in the good way when I was a wee nipper. I mean this story got to me, right in the heart, and made me have all these big epic feelings about SPACE and THE FUTURE and DEEEEAAATH. I was, what, about five when this was first on? So I didn’t have the most awesome grip on death, I mean I got it, but,y’know, I didn’t really *get* it. And this story is all about death. Which is a little bit morbid but also marvellously uplifting. Because it’s about how you die and what you’re willing to die for, and what your death can mean. We’ve two ships here, alt!Enterprise-D and the Enterprise-C and by the end of the story they have all chosen to die. The Ent-C backstory we got: at a time when Federation-Klingon relations were edging towards war, Captain Garrett and crew responded to a Klingon distress signal. And it was a Klingon colony under attack by Romulans and her Enterprise went in guns blazing, and died trying to defend them. That gets to me. And God knows I don’t like The Klingons – and here they use what we know about their culture to good effect rather thna making me want to stab needles in the back of my hand – the Klingons considered Garrett’s sacrifice a big honourable act, and so relations between the Federation and Klingons improved blah blah Khitomer Accords, all friends now. And shit, that’s just one tiny part of the story. You’ve also got Tasha Yar back, facing the fact that the ‘real’ her had a meaningless death, and you’ve Picard (who, lolariously, meets with Guinan in the great big conference room, and his entire senior staff in the poky ready room – this is the real reason the Federation is losing the war, NO SPATIAL AWARENESS) deciding he and his dudes are going down to try and get the timeline back to what the crazy lady who tends bar says it is. And Riker dies. SEE THIS STORY IS GREAT.

7) Qpid – SHUSHT. Any Trek story that has a pun in the title is gold. FACT. But, yeah, Qpid. This is awesome. And by awesome, I mean lolarious. Q is IRRITATED cause Picard and his dudes kept him alive when he was mortal and he feel he owes a debt so he wants to do something nice for Picard. And every scene this sparks off between Stewart and de Lancie is as awesome as it should be. And just as you are settling in to enjoy the lols, Picard and crew are transported to SHERWOOD FOREST where they are ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRY MEN, leading to Micheal Dorn’s greatest delivery of all time, bar none, fact: “Sir, I protest, I am not a Merry Man!” Everything about this ridiculousess is AMAZINGSAUCE cause our Starfleet dudes play it straight and are not down with this shit, and Vash gets the eightiest Maid Marian dress of all time, and Picard accidently ends up having a ball cause he gets to swordfight and exchange witty repartee, well, repartee, with a villain, and you sort of wish Q’d stuck around to annoy them every week because omg it’s so much better when he does. (The one irritating note for me is that the men of the Enterprise all get to swordfight for they are manly men, while Crusher and Troi smash pots on people’s heads. They do look pretty thrilled about it BUT STILL.)

8) Face of the Enemy – MORE ROMULANS. And such great Romulans! Carolyn Seymour plays the second greatest Romulan of TNG. And Troi is GREAT. Don’t diss Troi because here she’s everything she could be if the writers bothered, and she is angry and clever and moral and compassionate and it’s just so nice seeing a Troi-ish reaction to a crisis that isn’t “what’s a warp core breach?” or not bothering to write one at all. And lo, more excellent Romulan characterisation, as we get to see some more of their culture and ways of thinking and UNCARDBOARDNESS. Seymour is the soldier pissed off because her society’s intelligence service is shady as shit, and Troi having to play the shady as shit part when she should be more sympathetic to Seymour’s POV is delicious.

9) Unification – I think, though I don’t really know, this was sort of regarded as not bad but a little disappointing? Because it’s such A Big Deal if you are a Trek fan (we had the novelisation when I was a wee yun and it said something like ”AT LAST!! THE GENERATIONS MEET!!!” on the cover). Well, whatev, I love it. Again, ROMULANS. And everything about Romulan-Vulcan politics. But also Nimoy is pretty great and you get the Undiscovered Country Spock, who I wouldn’t want to watch a series about cause he is a but much BUT in small doses and as a character at the apex of his powers FINE, it’s WELL EARNED. But yeah, not only does this not make a complete fuck up of the Romulans, but there’s some very nice character stuff (Spock and Picard, Picard and Sarek, Data and Spock even, all get top moments).

10) Parallels – In some ways, season seven of TNG is hilariously dire. But it’s slick, so you tend to get swept along anyway and can mostly ignore how daft it’s all got. Except maybe Masks, and Eye of the Beholder. And Bloodlines, and…actually forget it, season seven is NOT GOOD. But it’s the sort of not good you can ENJOY. It doesn’t make me want to remove my eyeballs with a spoon is what I’m saying. Anyway, amidst this mire of so-so hocum is a single glittering gem. Maybe. I’ve no idea if Parallels is any good. BUT I LOVE IT. I remember watching this for the first time utterly riveted. WHAT SORT OF UNIVERSE WILL WORF FIND HIMSELF IN NEXT?? Parallel universes are great, obv, and Parallels has a BIJILLION  of them. And it’s the sort of story that I bet comes across as Irritatingly Smug if you’re not a fan, but if you are, or if you watch a lot of TNG, then it’s a little bit joyous, and such fun. It’s a bloody Worf story, for goodness sake but since it’s more about him being confused than KLINGON HONOUR that fact doesn’t actually do it any harm.

Questions No-One’s Asked But I’m Answering Anyway

1) Where’s The Inner Light?

Er, The Inner Light makes me throw up slightly due to the saccharine nonsense, also when I watch Trek, I want some goddamn Trekking through Stars, not old dude gets older on some planet I don’t care about. I admit I liked it once. I was seven. I also liked Power Rangers.

2) Where’s The Measure of a Man?

I totally rate this story and think it’s top stuff. BUT it’s not a story that fills me with delicious love and glee.

3) What stories narrowly missed out on an Exciting Top Ten place?

Sarek, Ensign Ro, Power Play (SHUSHT), Frame of Mind, All Good Things…, Pre-emptive Strike, Conspiracy, Elementary Dear Data, Deja Q, The Wounded, Night Terrors, Ship in a Bottle, Tapestry, Timescape.